By Lydia Hope Wilen / New York City
Lies are told for many reasons, including to protect ourselves or another from punishment, to spare someone’s feelings, to get out of a situation, to avoid embarrassment, to impress others, to get something not deserved, to get something you think you do deserve, to maintain privacy, to avoid judgment or anger or to increase popularity and acceptance. I can go on all day with reasons to lie. (That’s a lie. I just ran out of reasons.)
Instead of thinking about why you’ve lied lately (and I think you have, even though you may be lying to yourself about not having lied lately), reading my lying and being lied-to younger life experiences may give you some insight into your own history of untruths.
The Feared Beard
Every so often, I’d have a sleepover at my grandparents Bubbe and Zayde’s apartment. During one of those times, Bubbe’s brother, my mother’s Uncle Nuska, visited. I took one look at Uncle Nuska and went running to a back room, where I stayed until he eventually ate lunch and left.
As you can see from the photo above, Uncle Nuska had a full-grown beard. It terrified me. I wonder what Freud would say about a four-year-old with this abnormal facial-hair phobia. I would have been afraid of Freud too. He also had a beard.
(Incidentally, the glamour gal in the print dress on the left in the photo, is Bubbe, my grandmother.)
Knowing that seeing Uncle Nuska’s beard was traumatic for me, my grandfather found a solution. Zayde took apart the threads of a big piece of twine and bound the bushy, beardlike clump together with a rubber band.
The next time I visited my grandparents, we had show-and-tell. Zayde showed me what he said was Uncle Nuska’s beard, telling me that he had cut it off because I was afraid of it. That was worth a lot of hugs and kisses.
As fate would have it, one day, when I was at my grandparents’ home, Uncle Nuska came for an unannounced visit. I took one look at him and went running from the room. Once he left, I confronted my grandfather. “Zayde, you said you cut off Uncle Nuska’s beard. How come his beard is bigger than ever?” My grandfather had the presence of mind to offer me a reasonable cover-up for his lie: “It grew back.”
Liar, Liar, Kitchen’s on Fire
It was a school holiday. My father was working. My mother and sister were sleeping. I was awake and bored. There was a coffee can on the kitchen windowsill. I knew paper burned easily, but did metal, like that can?
I took one of the two-inch safety matches from its box and lit the match by striking it on the side of the box. I then put the lit match on top of the coffee can, while holding a potholder to put out the fire, in case the can started burning.
Well, the can didn’t burn, but the curtains covering the big kitchen window quickly went up in flames. I dropped the potholder and ran to my mother’s room, “Ma! Ma! Get up! The kitchen’s on fire!” Of course, my mother thought I was joking. “Be a good girl and let me sleep a little while longer.” I somehow made it clear that I wasn’t joking. “Ma, the kitchen is really on fire!” (Maybe Mom believed me because I talked in exclamation points.)
My mother raced into the kitchen and managed to pull down the curtains. She then grabbed a seltzer bottle (we always had a case of seltzer bottles coming and going) and put out the fire. It was incredible and amazing to watch this short, chubby, henna-haired Wonder Woman in action.
The fire had to be reported and two firemen came to make sure the fire wasn’t smoldering anywhere. They asked my mother how it happened. It was the one and only time I can ever remember my mother telling a real lie. She said she was cooking and the window was open. When she walked away, a gust of wind blew the curtain onto the range and it caught fire. My mother lied because she was embarrassed and ashamed to tell on her daughter, the arsonist.
The upshot was that Bubbe salvaged the uncharred pieces of the red-and-white polka dot curtain and made me an adorable summer halter and shorts set. Maybe crime does pay.
Cheers, Tears and Jeers
It was the late 1950s and coming up on my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary. My sister Joany thought we should plan a surprise party for them. It would require a lot of planning, a lot of money and a lot of lying.
The most famous nightclub in Brooklyn was The Elegante. I guess its name said it all. We were able to book a major portion of the club for June 11th, my parents’ anniversary date. It just so happened that Don Rickles was booked to entertain that night.
Let the lies begin. We made every excuse to our parents for us not having a party for family and friends. Instead, we convinced Mom and Dad that the four of us would celebrate at The Elegante. Leading up to that night, we had to beg, maybe even threaten, the invited crowd not to say a word about the event if and when they talked to our mother or father.
The night finally arrived. My mother’s cousin Moishe, who had a car and lived in our neighborhood, volunteered to drive us to the club. It was too warm to hide his dress-up suit under a coat, so he had to lie about the date he had scheduled after dropping us off at the club. From that experience alone, we learned that one lie invariably leads to many more. Oh, what a tangled web we crochet, when planning for the special day!
Yet somehow, miraculously, the secret was safe, no one had a slip of the tongue, and when my parents walked into the nightclub and the large group of invited guests yelled, “Surprise!”, it truly was a surprise…maybe even a shock. It was the first time I saw my father cry. (I’m crying now, thinking about it.)
The best part of the evening was when Don Rickles got on stage and picked on just about everyone in our party, except for my parents, Joany and me. He got in some real zingers and without our coaching.
That evening was worth every lie we told to make it happen exactly the way it happened. And what are the chances of that happening?
P.S. While doing this story, Insider editor Andrea Sachs and I discovered that both her parents and my parents got married on June 11th. What are the chances of that happening?
Lydia Hope Wilen had a successful collaboration with her late sister Joany as nonfiction bestselling authors (18 books), journalists, TV personalities, writers and talent coordinators on a Nickelodeon series hosted by Leonard Nimoy, Reading Rainbow episodes, skit writers for Dr. Ruth's TV show, Diet America Challenge on CBS, and writers of screenplays (optioned but not produced yet).
Lydia is writing on her own now and has just completed an extraordinary book for young people and their parents. It will have them laughing and learning...once she gets an agent and it gets published.